Caring for Our Outdoor Spaces

A conversation with IMS groundskeeper Dennis Rush

The forests, gardens, and lawns at IMS are a well-loved aspect of the retreat experience. Groundskeeper Dennis Rush and his wife, Nia, take care of these areas along with the entire facilities team. Thanks to their care, we all benefit from the serenity and beauty of our outdoor spaces.

Each season of the year brings something unique to our natural surroundings, including the spring when the sounds and smells of the gas-powered lawn mower fill the air. Thanks to our generous donors, this past fall we replaced the old lawn mower with a new electric one. The new mower is better for the environment, more ergonomically friendly, and most importantly to the retreat experience, it’s significantly less noisy and smelly.

Although the team only got to try out the new mower a few times this year, it’s already made a big difference for all. Here, Dennis fills us in on the new mower, gardening tips for the winter season at IMS, and how he got his start caring for the natural world.

Tell us about the new electric lawn mower and how it’s different than the old gas-powered one.

It takes more than seven hours to mow all the lawns at IMS, including at the Retreat Center, the Forest Refuge, and Gaston Pond. A lot of time is spent mowing, especially in the spring and early summer, when the grass needs to be mowed every week.

The biggest problem with the old Scorpion gas mower was the noise. Because we wanted to be mindful of disturbing the retreatants, we were always concerned about when we mowed. And trying to mow all the grass in between every retreat was difficult and we couldn’t always do it. So, there were times when it could be noisy for the yogis. The new mower is ninety percent quieter, so it gives us the ability to mow at any time.

Another big difference is how smooth the new one runs and how much more comfortable it is to operate. You had to stand to operate the old mower, so it wasn’t as safe or comfortable. And with fewer vibrations and better shock absorption, it’s easier on the body for the operator.

Commercial gas mowers like our old Scorpion need a lot more maintenance too. We’ve had it since 2009 and the engine and some other parts have had to be replaced over the years. We’re expecting a lot less maintenance with the new one. And, of course, there’s no gas or oil to deal with which is great. You just plug it in, it charges overnight, and it’s good for about six hours of mowing. So, it’s a lot better for the environment!

Tell us about some of the preparations needed on the IMS grounds to get ready for winter.

We do a lot at this time of year to get ready for the springtime when things are busy. Leaf removal is a big project at this time of year. In the areas where there are a lot of trees, we collect the leaves to protect the lawns and gardens. Too many leaves can suffocate plants and kill the grass. We also cut back the perennial beds to help them come up in the spring. We don’t cut everything. For some of the roses and other plants, we let the winter weather do the work and then we cut them back in the spring.

Yogis will notice that some of the plants in front of the meditation hall are wrapped in burlap to protect them against the west wind.

I’ll also add lime to a few spots on the lawn where the soil is acidic. This raises the pH—making it more alkaline—which allows the soil to better absorb nutrients.

We’ve also started to renovate the Buddha garden (near the parking lot, behind the fence). This area had been a bit neglected partly due to the Covid lockdown when we had fewer people working. We’re starting to spruce it up and we’ll do more in that area in the spring.

Snow and ice can be another big part of the retreat experience at IMS. How do you prepare for the Massachusetts’ winter?

Ice is one of our biggest challenges. We want to make sure yogis are safe on the steps and the paths, so it’s important to keep everything clean with so many people walking around.

We keep the buckets on the sidewalks filled with sand or salt so that we’re ready when the ice and snow come. And anyone can put the sand out, even some of the yogis do it.

We’re also getting the snow blowers ready. We have a snowplow, but a local company does most of the heavy snowplowing. But we have at least four snowblowers, so we do a lot of snow blowing.

How did you start doing this type of work? And how did it lead you to IMS?

As a kid, I did a lot of gardening work. Eventually, I went to forestry school at Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York. In my 20s, I worked for the Forestry Service as a seasonal worker. I’ve also worked at plant and tree nurseries, and I’ve done a lot of landscaping work. That’s where I met Nia—on a landscape crew in Watertown, CT.

I was working for the Mount Washington Resort in New Hampshire before coming to IMS. While living in New Hampshire, we both got interested in Buddhism and were involved in some sanghas in the area. One year, they weren’t going to hire us back and Nia looked at the IMS website, and there was a job being offered, so that’s how we came here. And now we live at Gaston Pond. We’ve been at IMS for more than eight years.

What’s the first sign that spring has arrived for you?

I know spring is here when the forsythia starts to bloom. That’s when I notice more yogis coming outside. And the crocuses and the apple buds are a tell-tale sign too.